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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Homily

Ordinary Sunday 18, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 31, 2011

Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21

Wounded and blessed’

Paul Gauguin’s vivid work, Vision After the Sermon, is shown on the front of our orders of service. In 1888, the year he made the painting, Gauguin wrote to his friend Vincent van Gogh that the scene depicted – Jacob Wrestling with the Angel – was a reality in the imaginations of the Breton women upon hearing the sermon on the text from Genesis 32. Perhaps he meant that in a pejorative sense – that the scene was real only in the imaginations of simple peasants. Nothing about the painting, however, suggests a condescending attitude toward the women – they are painted with subtlety, and the mood is one of contemplation. It would be fairer to say that the artist is fascinated by their faith – moved, puzzled, interested, curious, respectful.

We too are led, then, to contemplate the reality so vivid for these people of faith. In our own imaginations, in our hearts and minds, what do we see when we hear the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger/angel (the Hebrew word is “mortal”, hence the rendering in our translation: “someone”)? What is our vision – before, during, and after the sermon?

The text is a dizzying construction, each line of dialogue beginning, “And he said”, without any indication of who is speaking. We might surmise that Jacob and the Other are mirror images of one another – Jacob in effect wrestling with himself, or figuratively wrestling with his twin, Esau, whom he is about to confront. Indeed, in the next chapter Jacob says of Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” which is what he names the site of the encounter with the mysterious “someone”: Jacob named the place Peniel – “Face of God” – “because I have seen God face to face, yet my life was spared” (v. 30).

What do we see? Jacob’s self-torment? Another dream? Jacob’s wrestling with the twin he deceived and from whom he stole the blessing of the firstborn? Jacob wrestling an angel, a messenger of God? Jacob wrestling with God Godself? Is it possible to see all these? And even to see there our own struggles – with ourselves, with those we have wronged and from whom we are estranged, with those whose judgements we most fear? American philosopher, Judith Butler, whose interests include literature and feminism and whose most recent work focuses on Jewish philosophy, exploring pre- and post-Zionist criticisms of state violence, writes: “Let’s face it, we’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” I really like that.

And what strikes me on hearing this story again is the fact that Jacob is struck upon the “hip” – struck at the centre of his being – and that he is changed, blessed, re-named, and walks thereafter with a limp. Jacob is blessed and wounded. Israel is wounded and blessed.

He has learned something important enough to warrant a name change, and it has to do with conversion from scamming and swindling (Jacob means “Heel-Grabber”) to struggling with God and others in the name of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the very next chapter we read that Jacob/Israel went on ahead and bowed to the ground seven times as he approached Esau. But Esau ran to Jacob/Israel and embraced him, throwing his arms around him and kissing him. And they wept.

Wounded and blessed, estranged siblings embrace and weep.

Is this the way it is for us? Palestinian and Jew? Jew and Christian? Muslim and Christian? First and Second Peoples? Do I learn compassion in the wake of struggle, as I face my fears, and as I learn that God is present in the one so very like myself, the one I thought my rival, the one I have cheated or harmed, the one who knows me well and names me?

Sometimes I’d rather I could simply know, for myself, by myself, within myself, how to be compassionate, how to love, without having to struggle or suffer, without my being so exposed, so porous. I’d rather be a strident and confident healer/teacher, not wounded and limping.

Our Gospel reading shows us that, for Jesus, too, there is struggle and suffering. He has just heard about the political execution, the beheading, of his cousin, John, with whom he has shared so much. He seeks a “deserted place to be alone”, presumably to grieve. And, in the midst of mourning, he is moved to compassion for those who have followed him from the towns. Another of Butler’s lines rings true: “Loss has made a tenuous ‘we’ of us all.”

The “feeding of the five thousand” (there are six versions of the story in our Gospels – no doubt it was a crucial story for the early churches) serves as a model of ministry, a model of compassion, sharing what is needed for life from the depths of human woundedness.

The miracle looks back to God’s providing manna for hungry wanderers in the wilderness, to the institution of the Eucharist (Christ’s offering the very life of God in and through his own life), and toward the final consummation of God’s reign in which all people will be gathered and blessed at the banquet table.

The Gospel shows us that Jesus pleaded with Abba-God for an alternative to suffering love. And yet the Christ we call Sovereign and Risen is a Saviour forever scarred, forever wounded. This is the One who invites us to gather here today, and to receive from wounded hands the blessing not just of bread and wine, but the very life of God for all of us and for each of us. Drawing on the work of Judith Butler, one theologian describes the gathered assembly thus: “A crowded, haunted collection, folded into the God folded into us, interrupted and undone by each other, we desire, mourn, and remember” (M-J. Rubenstein).

Amen.

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Undone by each other: Interrupted sovereignty in Augustine’s Confessions, in Polydoxy: Theology of multiplicity and relation, Catherine Keller and Laurel C. Schneider (eds), Routledge, UK, 2011.